U.S. Department of Energy officials continue to insist the amounts of radioactive substances found in a couple of spots around Pike County, most notably Zahn’s Corner Middle School, 13806 SR 220, Piketon, are minute and thousands of times less than the threshold at which they would pose a risk to the public.
Still, as most know by now if they have been paying any attention whatsoever, the Scioto Valley Local School District closed the Piketon middle school about a week early because of alleged and confirmed radioactive contamination found inside and outside the school building. The closing attracted national media attention with stories appearing on CNN and NBC, among other major media outlets.
If the amounts of contaminant are extremely small as DOE claims, has the story been overblown, nationally and locally? The answer probably depends upon with whom you speak.
“Cancer has just become synonymous with southern Ohio,” said Village of Piketon Councilman Dennis Foreman, who also serves on the Site-Specific Advisory Board (SSAB,) a volunteer group which is meant to supply advice and comment on the demolition and decontamination activities at the former Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant, which is largely presumed to be the source of any radioactive contamination.
Foreman’s comment on southern Ohio and cancer may or may not be a case of overstating the facts and there is no known confirmed link to cancers in the community and the Piketon plant.
Still, according to the Ohio Health Department’s 2019 Cancer Atlas, Pike County’s cancer rate is the second highest in Ohio at more than 500 cases per 100,000 residents. That number is about 10 percent higher than the statewide rate.
Just south of Pike County, Scioto County ties for the fifth highest rate in Ohio, with 494.5 incidents of cancer per 100,000 residents. Still, it’s Pike that is getting all the national attention. According to a CNN report, five students in the Scioto Valley Local School District were diagnosed with cancer in the last five years. Three of those have died. Those numbers are exactly why Pike County resident Ethan Reads said he chose to attend Thursday afternoon’s DOE public forum at Shawnee State University.
Reads stated he attended a vocational school on the outskirts of the Portsmouth plant site. He was familiar with at least one of the names of the deceased cancer victims though he did not know that person himself.
“I just heard all about what’s been going on and thought I would come and check things out for myself,” Reads said.
While he still lives in fairly close proximity to the plant, he did not indicate any extreme concern about his own health.
Should persons in Scioto County be concerned with their health or be paying close attention to what seems to be happening in Pike County? Portsmouth resident Robert Berry currently serves as chairman of the Portsmouth plant SSAB and also was in attendance at the Thursday afternoon DOE session.
Berry reiterated the amounts of radioactive substances found in the school and elsewhere were far, far below what DOE considers dangerous levels. Still, Berry quickly added he fully understands the concerns of parents and residents in the area.
“They closed the school out of an over-abundance of caution,” he said, “and I think it was the right thing to do.”
Following the closure of the Piketon school, DOE agreed to fund a third-party assessment of contamination at the plant site and around it. Berry believes anyone concerned with plant contamination should wait for and pay close attention to the results of that study. He added he is optimistic those results will confirm DOE’s contention any contamination is below minimal. But Berry also stated he is happy DOE agreed to a third-party study.
“The public is not going to believe DOE at this point,” Berry admitted.
What shape the DOE study ultimately will take seemed a bit up in the air as of press time for this story. Pike County Health Commissioner Matt Brewster said earlier this week health officials from his county would be meeting at some point on Thursday. He added they should have a better idea of what sort of study DOE has in mind following that meeting. Brewster did not immediately return a voicemail request for comment Thursday afternoon.
On Wednesday, Brewster spoke of limiting DOE’s involvement with the study as much as possible for what he considered obvious reasons. However, he also added according to DOE’s Washington leadership, limiting the federal government’s control of the study complicated the funding picture. At least as of Wednesday, no price tag had been attached to the DOE study.
Brewster added once an environmental contractor is chosen and work begins, results could be known in as little as 30 days from the start of the study.
Much if not all of the current controversy can be traced back to a 2017 Piketon Annual Site Environmental Report (ASER,) which came out in January of this year. Among other things, that report showed trace amounts of a radioactive transuranic known as neptunium-237 was found in air monitor near Zahn’s Corner Middle School. The same substance was detected in what DOE called trace amounts in October 2017 on Camp Creek Road in Lucasville. Again, according to DOE, neptunium-237 did not show up at any other air monitoring stations in 2017 or 2018.
Two or three sources, including Brewster and a DOE official, also talked about finding a substance known as americium in the air on Camp Creek Road. The DOE official also pronounced the amount of that substance found as extremely minimal.
At Thursday’s DOE forum, information presented stated “trace detections, far below federal limits for health protectiveness, of neptunium-237 have shown up a total of five times during continuous air monitoring from 2001-2018 (Since operations ended at site.)”
Again, according to the DOE information presented Thursday, the 2017 ASER included over 11,500 bits of environmental monitoring data, including 1,307 ambient air monitoring results from 16 monitored stations. A highly placed local DOE expert said that complexity contributed to the reasons behind the report not appearing until January of this year. He said information was collected through December 2017. He added tabulating all the different data points and putting it in a format understandable by the general public is a slow process. Nevertheless, DOE critics have not been shy about pointing out the long wait for the release of the 2017 report.
The SSAB’s Berry said preparation of some parts of the annual Piketon ASER are handled by students at four Pike County high schools, which also add somewhat to the time spent preparing the reports. Berry and others said 2018 data all has been collected but Berry also said no date for release of that year’s ASER has been set to his knowledge.
Berry’s online bio lists him as a quality control specialist for Desco Federal Credit Union in Portsmouth. While he has no formal background in science or technology related to the Piketon uranium enrichment plant, Berry said he applied to be on the board as he thought it might be interesting.
“Things have definitely picked up as of late,” Berry said Thursday. He was adamant Scioto County residents need to keep an eye on what happens regarding the plant both for the sake of their own interests but also for the sake of Pike County residents.
“They are your neighbors,” Berry concluded.
Reach Tom Corrigan at (740) 370- 0715. © 2019 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved.